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To ease world hunger: private giving is coming through

By Larry MinearLarry Minear serves as Washington-based representative for development policy of Church World Service and Lutheran World Relief, two private agencies with extensive programs of relief, refugee resettlement, and development. / November 8, 1984

As images of starvation in Ethiopia crowd their way into our consciousness on evening news broadcasts, many Americans are confronted with the worst African famine of the century. Also, they have become aware that American and other private agencies are playing an indispensable role in a situation in which political considerations had delayed Ethiopian and United States government responses.

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It comes as no surprise that people-to-people organizations are working energetically and effectively in Ethiopia. Experts warn that up to 1 million people may starve. For just this reason Americans have come to expect their voluntary agencies to be involved in situations of acute human need - whether in Cambodia, Central America, or here at home.

As we observe the 10th anniversary of the 1974 World Food Conference this week, it is timely to ask how significant has been the contribution of people-to-people agencies toward the conference objective that within a decade no child would go to bed hungry, no family fear for its next day's bread.

More than 170 private and voluntary US agencies - groups like CARE and Africare, Volunteers in Technical Assistance and Technoserve, Catholic Relief Services, and my own agencies - are currently registered with the US Agency for International Development. Last year they reported private contributions of just over $1 billion. The government provided them with $750 million more in grants, contracts, food assistance, and other forms of support, a portion of the larger US economic assistance program of some $9 billion.

Roughly three-fourths of these private agency resources are directed toward third-world countries. While the United States now ranks a distressing 16th of 17 developed nations in its economic assistance as a proportion of its gross national product, the US is tied for eighth place when it comes to citizen contributions to the private agencies of their choice.

Last summer, when governments reviewed progress during the past decade toward eradicating hunger, they conceded the shortcomings of many government programs in reaching the hungry. They observed that while food production at the global level and in many third-world countries had risen faster than population, the number of people who suffer from chronic malnutrition has also increased. The past decade has seen, in the words of a World Food Council document, ''more food but less food equity.''

Voluntary agencies, however, are neither a US invention nor a monopoly. There are nongovernmental groups in many other countries, developed and developing, and at the international level as well. Such groups are increasingly courted by the US and other governments and by United Nations agencies. US private groups, in addition to the resources noted above, received $84 million in 1983 from other governments and international organizations.

Governments seeking a more effective attack against hunger during the balance of the century envision an expanding role for people-to-people agencies, many of which have already stepped up their efforts during the decade since the World Food Conference. Their involvement at the grass-roots level provides a major missing link in reaching the very poor.